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Floatation and size selection | Shape | Bindings | Crampons | Use | Field repair | Personal use | Traditional and homemade snowshoes | Lightweight snowshoes | White Mountains, NH, snowshoe recommendations
While I have not bought snowshoes in many years, I have looked at snowshoes in the stores and paid attention to the concerns and experiences other hikers have had both shopping and using other snowshoes. Most concerns for snowshoe users (such as floatation and crampons) have remained the same. There are some newer concerns as construction materials and showshoe use have changed.
I highly recommend renting snowshoes before buying them. If possible, go on a group hike and pay attention to the snowshoes the others' are wearing. Some may even be willing to trade for a few minutes to give you an idea what the options might feel like.
Floatation and size selection
There are two primary elements that go into choosing snowshoe size. Your weight (including pack weight) and the type of snow in which you expect to hike. The more you weigh and the drier and more powdery the snow, the larger the surface area of the snowshoes you will need will be. If you are primarily going to be using snowshoes in the dry powder of the Rockies, you'll want much bigger and longer snowshoes to carry the same weight than if you are primarily hiking in more moisture laden snow.
The shape of your showshoe is dependent on your environment. For example, long beaver tail snowshoes won't work well when you're twisting and winding through a lot of trees and brush. If you're going to be glissading down snowfields, you may prefer more evenly rounded tails.
Bindings, which are manufacturer dependent, are the part of the snowshoe that holds your foot onto the snowshoe. Some bindings are stiff plastic-like materials with slips or straps to hold your foot onto the snowshoe. Others, such as the bindings on my Sherpas use lacing to attached my boot to the snowshoe. While the Sherpa bindings I use seem more basic than some others, they also seem to accomodate a wider variety of boot shapes and sizes. I've tried snowshoes bindings that just wouldn't accomodate the width of my Sorel boots.
Some showshoes also allow you to adjust the tension on the binding. This can help you control whether or not the tail "drags" behind you or "flips" up as you take each stop. This is true for at least some Sherpa showshoes. When tails drag, they can feel heavy to pull through deep and wet snow. When tails flip up, they can constantly flip snow onto your legs and back. I usually try to find a balance.
Unless you are primarily hiking in flat to slightly rolling hills, you will need a crampon on your snowshoes. For true mountaineering on steep hills and those areas likely to have icy areas, a good claw is absolutely necessary. I've seen the misery of folks using the "potato peeler" crampons with their snowshoes in the White Mountains and it was definitely not fun for them.
On steep trails such as those in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, instep crampons are not enough. My snowshoes have rugged crampons under both the ball and heel of my foot. They have to hold on both deep snow on hills as well as icy patches on rocky ledges.
Unlike other winter sports, the learning curve for snowshoeing is quite small, For the most part, just walk and you'll be snowshoeing. Given that your heels are not attached to the snowshoes however, you just have to remember not to try to take backwards steps. Doing so often results in a fall into the white stuff.
On steep hills however, putting a little effort into kicking steps often makes the going easier by allowing the snowshoes to provide a level platform onto which to put your weight. This will make climbing easier and prevent extraneous sliding back down the hill as you go up.
On mixed terrain where rocks may be protruding, look for level areas on which to step.
Going downhill can be fun. If there's enough snow but not too much, you may be able to glissade by leaning back on the tails of your snowshoes far enough to lift the crampons off the snow. If there's too much snow for glissading, plunge steps may work. The nice thing about winter hiking is that even though going uphill takes a lot longer with snow on the ground, going downhill takes much less time.
Consider also what happens if you break your snowshoes in the field. How field repairable are they?
Many newer snowshoes are designed for previously broken trails, in competitive venues, where if a snowshoe would break, you would not be left stranded. If you use these in on true backcountry or wilderness trail, and any part of your snowshoes breaks, you could easily be stranded if you can't repair your own snowshoes in the field.
I use Sherpas. I bought them years ago when I think they just had four sizes, one style, and two (maybe three) crampon choices. My Lightfoots are 9" by 31" and weight 4 lbs 10 oz. for the pair. If I remember correctly, Sherpa guesstimated that they would be good up to 225 lbs. Of course, when you're talking about snowshoeing, snow consistancy means everything.
Most times, when I'm on a well broken and well-used trail, my snowshoes are overkill. Occasionally, when I'm breaking trail with a group, it's nice to have the floatation when I'm one of the first few in the group.
One time, I was doing a loop hike with one friend. We took a trail up the mountain that had been used repeatedly that winter. When we came down, we headed for a trail that hadn't been used at all that winter. At the top of the trail, we met two others also about to head down the same trail. The four of us hooked up for the hike down. Good thing, too.
The snow was very powdery and incredibly deep. Even with snowshoes, the snow was over our waists. The lead person would take a step or two and basically fall, swim, and flounder down that trail. There was no "walking" for the first in line. We would just take a few steps before switching places and taking our turn breaking trail.
Traditional and homemade snowshoes
Traditional and homemade snowshoes often have a wider profile than the newer mass produced snowshoes most people use today. If you are planning on snowshoeing in areas that others are also likely to use, you may find your snowshoes do not "fit" in the already packed trail from the hikers who preceded them. It can be annoying and very tiring to walk with one side of the snowshoe up on the wall of the track while the other is in the trough. Over time, it is very tiring to rarely be able to take a flat step.
I recommend that if you go with something other than the narrower profile newer snowshoes, make sure they are no wider than the new ones unless you are never going to walk on trails that others have already broken.
While rugged and reliable, my Sherpas are not lightweight. There are snowshoes available that are marketed as lightweight. When choosing snowshoes, however, ensure that your selection is really designed for the situations you intend to put them in. True backcountry and wilderness areas are no place to skimp on the quality of your snowshoes.
Do not select "sport" snowshoes intended for racing on packed trails when you intend to use them in the backcountry. Likewise, if you plan to run on mostly packed trails, do not choose the four pound heavyweight snowshoes designed for breaking trails while wearing a heavy backpack.
White Mountains, NH, snowshoe recommendations
In 2004 or so, I put together the following list. It was largely based on heresay. Do your own research to find updated options but this may be useful as a place to start.
Many of these recommendations came from discussions on the AT-L list and the Backpackinglight lists. Check there for original archives.
Positive recommendations for areas as rugged as the Whites:
Snowshoes to avoid for rugged mountaineering (remember this is heresay):
Last updated, November 14, 2006.
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